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Government. Arts. Agency.

by Andrew Taylor

Last week, I was honored to be a plenary panelist at the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies Leadership Institute, a gathering of directors, deputy directors, and council members of the state funding/support agencies. I was invited there to listen to their conversations, respond to what I heard, and share some insights with some rather clever co-panelists (political researcher and strategist Celinda Lake and Lori Grange of the Pew Center on the States).

If you've been tracking state arts policy at all, you know that many of these agencies have been hammered by their newly austere legislators -- many losing significant funding, at least one (Kansas) losing all funding. Some have been shuffled into parent agencies in tourism or economic development. Many see additional cuts coming.

But while we're all struck by the budgetary impacts and implications, the main thing that struck me at this conference was the framing -- the shifting definitions, still fairly disconnected between agencies, about who they were and what they did. During the plenary panel, thanks to the insights of my panel colleagues, I eventually realized that the framing challenge was (at least) three fold.

Consider the phrase: "government arts agency." We are in a moment when each of those words is in rather radical flux:

  • GOVERNMENT: There's little doubt that our nation and its citizens are rethinking the boundary and the covenant of government. At least one faction believes, rather loudly, that government is far too big, and has overreached. Another faction believes government has been captured by wealthy interests and corporations. Very few seem to be seeking the positive attributes of government, which puts extensive pressure on all things related to government -- including state arts agencies.
  • ARTS: The way we understand and discuss 'the arts' is also changing rather quickly. The old standard of professional, nonprofit, primarily-Western cultural organizations are now part of a broadening mix of expressive efforts from multiple cultures, by professionals and amateurs, in traditional and non-traditional venues. Among this group of state arts agency leaders, this issue seemed to be a commonly accepted truth -- with many of them even reaching further into the commercial worlds of design, commercial film, and for-profit creative services.
  • AGENCY: An 'agent' is an individual or organization that is authorized to act on another's behalf. It's a common element of any collaborative work (in fact, anyone on staff for an organization is an agent for that organization, whether or not 'agent' is in their title). It also happens to be a particularly complex and vexing element in economics or business theory (read about the principal-agent problem for some examples of why). This group of agency leaders were clearly conflicted about who, exactly, they were agents for. The assumptions broke down into three primary groups:
    • We are agents for the public -- for all the citizens of our state.
    • We are agents for the legislators -- who are the publicly designated representatives of all the people of our state.
    • We are agents for the infrastructure -- for the organizations, primarily established nonprofit cultural organizations, who steward the cultural resources and processes in our state.

While there are certainly arguments to be made for each of these principals in the principal-agent challenge, any of them are correct. But it's rather essential that an agent knows, exactly, who they work for, and what they've been authorized to do.

Government, to my mind, is the way we decide the things we have to decide together. Since we don't have an instant poll of all citizens for all choices, we select (by election) agents to act on our behalf. Somewhere along the way, we've lost track of who is serving whom. And that makes life particularly complex for a government arts agency.